#3 The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

girlinthetowerKatherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower is the second in the Winternight trilogy following the fantasy fairy tale The Bear and the Nightingale. The story picks up where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off, with the young heroine Vasya donning the clothes of a boy and fleeing the life she has known in her small medieval Russian village. She braves the snowy landscape, encountering mystical creatures and dangerous bandits, in search of a different life, a life of her own, where she is not controlled by a husband or by the church.

Arden is an artful storyteller, beautifully weaving magic and adventure together to create a narrative that is captivating, entertaining, and evocative. A very enjoyable read.

#1 The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Book of Dust.jpgI haven’t read Philip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials YA trilogy, nor have I seen the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, so when I cracked open Pullman’s newest, La Belle Sauvage, it was with fresh, unknowing eyes. La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in The Book of Dust trilogy, is actually a precursor to The Golden Compass and is set 10 years before the plot lines at the start of that series take place.

This first book follows eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of Oxford innkeepers, and his daemon Asta, on various adventures as he attempts to parse good from evil in the complex world around him, all the while shielding an orphaned infant, a baby named Lyra, from harm with the help of a girl named Alice.

While I was entertained by La Belle Sauvage and enjoyed reading it, I couldn’t help feeling that, from page one, I’d been dropped into this world, this Pullman universe, without a guide map. Perhaps all the big world building took place in His Dark Materials. Perhaps my view of this world, so like our own but also different, was small because I saw it solely through the eyes of the young protagonist and have no vision for what comes after. The story was interesting, engaging even, but felt slightly limited in scope. Also, while clearly setting the scene for the next book, the ending felt very rushed and haphazard, a sloppily tied bow at the end of a finely-plotted book.

2017 Favorites

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(5)

I read so many really great books this year. Books that broke my heart, made me laugh and cry, books that terrified me, books that enchanted me and made me wonder, books that made me fear the future and books that carried me into the past, books that grounded me in the present and books that transported me to magical worlds.

Of the 104 books I read this year, these were my favorites:

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(1)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book astonished me. Within the first few pages, I knew that it would be one of my favorites of the year. A favorite for always. It is just. that. GOOD. It’s hilarious and smart, touching and bizarre, and I fucking LOVED it. A truly remarkable read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I had the great pleasure of hearing Jesmyn Ward read from Sing, Unburied, Sing with my friend Guinevere a few months back at East Bay Booksellers. As far as I am concerned, Jesmyn Ward can do no wrong. She does things with language and narrative that are magic. The characters in this book, their story, will amaze you and break your heart. Read it, it’s so worth the heartbreak.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
I loved this story of complicated father figure Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo navigating their way through the world. It’s a tale full of adventure, danger, suspense, and heart. Tinti keeps you hanging on every sentence, every word, up until the glorious end.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho is a gorgeously written debut novel about family, memory, and loss. The narrative pivots around the murder of a child and is both haunting and lovely, with a line of suspense that keeps the reader turning page after page. I was so moved by Idaho, by the characters and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what Emily Ruskovich comes out with next.

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogs and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
This book stole my heart, broke it, and stitched it back together. It’s the story of an all-consuming tangled mess of love and violence, of growing up, of survival. It’s brutal and terrifying and beautiful and brave, and completely riveting. An absolutely stunning debut. Read it.  Trigger warning: rape, incest

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I can’t believe I waited so long to read Pachinko, my 104th book of the year. It’s a saga about multiple generations of a Korean family in Japan, about identity and duty and honor, about love and longing and loss, about the triumphs and hardships of life. It’s a great read, a page-turner, and Lee is a wonderful, seemingly effortless storyteller.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is a memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. It is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a powerhouse. Hunger traces the before and after in Gay’s life. Before she was raped, and after; before she used food as a salve and after, when food filled the void of hurt and pain left by the boys who raped her when she was 12, when hunger built her body into a massive impenetrable fortress. Gay is consistently smart and insightful, and her look inward in Hunger is fastidious and unflinching. Her look outward, towards the way women in society can never escape the weight of their bodies, their worth constantly measured by their ability to disappear into thinness or reviled for their audacity to take up space, is dead-on.

Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab
I sing the praises of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic fantasy trilogy to anyone who will listen. As I mentioned in my review of the third book, A Conjuring of Light, “these books are the perfect escape.” And they are! They are a pleasure to read because they’re FUN and full of magic, and they make me happy. Start with book one, A Darker Shade of Magic, and you won’t be able to stop. I’ve been trying to find a magical series that replicates the feelings I was imbued with while reading this trilogy but I haven’t found another fantasy series that I’ve loved as much. Let me know if you do…

More great reads of 2017:
Silk Poems by Jen Bervin
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Her Body and Other Parties stories by Carmen Maria Machado
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Look poems by Solmaz Sharif
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What were your favorite books of 2017?

#80 Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen

26038869Conspiracy of Ravens is the second in Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series starring Nettie Lonesome. Conspiracy of Ravens picks up right where Wake of Vultures ends; Nettie, now fully identifying as Rhett Hennessy, gathers his strength in the wilds of Bowen’s fantastical Southwest and sets out with his posse to hunt evil, monsters and men, as the Shadow.

I loved Wake of Vultures and liked Conspiracy of Ravens. Both are surprising, intense, bloody, and groundbreaking, though Bowen’s plot blocking and narrative structure started to feel formulaic and mechanical in this second book.

The transformation of Bowen’s mixed-race trans hero/ine, from Nettie to Rhett, from gritty boyish girl to the Shadow, offers a new and refreshing coming-of-age story in a genre where so many main characters in fantasy are young white cis men who go to wizard school and discover their great magic skills.

 

#65 Vicious by V.E. Schwab

13638125If you’ve been following Brief Book Reviews from the beginning, you’ll have read all about my fondness for the highly entertaining Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab.

Vicious, the first (and, so far, only) book in Schwab’s Villains trilogy, is a coming-of-age superhero/villain creation story with a quirky cast of damaged characters.

Though I knew it was unlikely, I wanted to be as taken with Vicious as I was with the Shades of Magic trilogy. The writing was fine. The story had some charm. But, by the end of the book I realized this: I love magic (no surprise there), I don’t love superhero myths.

 

#64 Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

22299763Crooked Kingdom, follow-up to Six of Crows, is the fast-paced and entertaining second book in Leigh Bardugo’s YA duology featuring teenage criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker and his motley crew of miscreants.

If you haven’t read Six of Crows, I won’t give too much away here about the sequel, only that Bardugo crafts unique, idiosyncratic characters who carry the story from start to finish and engineers fantastic plot twists to keep the reader engaged and guessing until the very end.

And, yes, there’s MAGIC.

#59 Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

22294935I discovered Leigh Bardugo’s YA fantasy Six of Crows on Goodreads (V.E. Schwab, author of the Shades of Magic series, rated it 5 stars), and the cover pops up constantly on bookish Instagram feeds.

It took a few chapters for the plot and the characters to capture my imagination, but once they did I was hooked and stayed up reading 350+ pages, bingeing on Bardugo’s well-crafted fantasy world and her diverse ensemble of outcasts until midnight.

The plot centers on a heist led by a ruthless, cane-wielding criminal mastermind, the 17-year-old orphan Kaz Brekker. Brekker and his motley crew of miscreants voyage to the impenetrable Ice Court, which houses both a palace and a prison, to kidnap the creator of a drug that threatens to wreak havoc on the magical world they inhabit. The team is fueled by a large monetary reward, and the plan is swiftly put into action and summarily complicated by the conflicts that arise within the ranks. A wholly entertaining and delightful read… And I’m looking forward to escaping into the second in the duology, Crooked Kingdom.

#53 The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

2495567About a month ago my husband asked what I like about fantasy books and, in all seriousness, I told him: “I just love magic.” He laughed. Loudly.

If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning of the year, you’ll know that I am new to the genre and am now on the hunt for well-written epic/high historical fantasy books with plenty of, yep, magic… preferably with a great cover treatment, which is surprisingly hard to find in that section of the bookstore.

So after reading about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, praised by beloved fantasy writers like Ursula Le Guin and Terry Brooks, as well as genre aficionados, I was excited because MAGIC.

The coming-of-age story is a familiar one. A brilliant young boy named Kvothe, raised amid a band of traveling players, escapes death, endures loss, poverty and hunger, attends wizard university, gains some enemies, falls in love. There is conflict, longing, heartbreak, adventure, and some wizardly magic.

It’s a huge 700+ page book that took me 200 hundred pages to get into and a long week to get through. With a heavy edit and a greater focus on world-building it could have been fast-paced and intensely readable. As it was, my interest flagged towards boredom at various points, and I could never fully picture the characters or the world they inhabited.

#47 The Chimes by Anna Smaill

25474336.jpgThe dystopian world in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is set to music. In this indeterminate future London, where the written word is a lost code and metal is a precious commodity, Smaill’s characters walk lento and run presto, they sing directions, recognize strangers by their song, and they attune their ears daily to the Chimes, the beautiful music played across London that erases memories and keeps the inhabitants in line.

The novel follows young Simon, recently arrived in London after the death of his parents, with a bag of objectmemories and a message in the form of a song from his mother to a woman named Netty. As the days pass and the Chimes create gaps in his perception and fog his past, he must find a way to remember his purpose, deliver his message, and retain his memories if he is to survive the stifling by those in charge, a set of Oxford elites known as The Order.

After reading and loving V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series over the last few months, I’ve been on the hunt for entertaining, well-written fantasy, which is why I picked up The Chimes. While I liked the novel, I wished for less musical prose and more world-building; there were sections where I couldn’t envision the scene fully because the musicality of the writing muddled the plot and overshadowed the visual elements of the setting.